USA Today (Religion may be a miracle drug byTyler J. VanderWeele and John Siniff ,October 28, 2016) highlighted an extensive Harvard University study on the connection between health and religion. There have been other studies as well that have shown a positive and significant correlation between physical and psychological health and attending religious services on a weekly basis. This particular article asks what would happen if a single elixir were developed that would reduce mortality rates by 20-30%, improve optimism and reduce rates of loneliness, depression and suicide, improve marriage and relationships, improve self-control, and boost overall mental health? Would we clamor for that elixir? The answer the studies have found is that elixir is regular attendance at religious services. Few people may go for health reasons, but the solid results may tell us something about where our time and focus in life may be well spent and for a good reason – as faith provides each of us with a sense of meaning and purpose to life.
While many people do report attending religious services on a regular basis, an increasing number are choosing to have no religion in their lives. They often see organized religion in a negative light, and something that is outdated and restrictive to individual pursuits. The common cliché often heard is, “I don’t believe in organized religion because I am ‘spiritual and but not religious.’” It is interesting to note that studies show it is service attendance and not private spirituality that predicts health. Why would that be the case? Did God have a better plan for us than our own? Every single time I think I have a smarter and better plan than God’s, the odds are about hundred and one percent that I am happily wrong again – happy because, at least I end up knowing the better path to take.
All right, so we have a God that is unconditionally and passionately (even recklessly) in love with each one of us. He gives us his only Son, Christ, who pours out everything for us in that love – teaching and showing us the way. After Jesus dies for our sins and our stubborn habit of turning our backs on God’s love and will in preference for our own plans, he raises himself from the dead to show us that we have life eternal. He also does something else. He spends his time teaching and instructing his apostles. He gives then that authority to teach in his name, to perform miracles and to forgive our sins. He chooses Peter to be the rock upon which he would build his Church that he promised would endure until his return and would be guided in the fullness of truth by the Holy Spirit. He built and left us his Church, which is both divine (his own mystical body) and human (a community of imperfect sinners) for a reason.
It is interesting to note that Jesus was certainly spiritual, but also very religious. He observed the holy days, knew his scripture, and passionately treated the temple as a sacred space of God. He spoke of loving him in terms of action towards our fellow man and following his commandments. He knew that we needed community, teaching authority and guidance to understand, and grace through the sacraments to remain strong and on track. Since we are made in God’s image, we are meant for relationship and find true ourselves only in the act of self-gift to others. Church provides us with the opportunity of community and participation, a shared moral and spiritual vision, and a sense of accountability and caring for others. Something powerful happens in that sacred community, in the Word and in the breaking of Bread. Together and when we leave that gathering, we know our behavior and beliefs have a moral meaning, life has a purpose, family relationships have a sacred significance, and we have a reason to think about life and our role in it in a different way, in a less self-focused way.